When René Redzepi was told that none of what he aimed to achieve in Mexico would be remotely close to what he had imagined, it awakened an appetite for the adrenaline generated by great challenges. Like a true explorer, he did not settle for someone else's vision. He gambled it all on a seven-week pop-up in the Mexican Caribbean. We spoke with him as the Noma project drew to a close, in order to hear his impressions.
A Danish chef in Mexico
Cooking in Mexico carries centuries-old baggage rooted in its ties to a pre-Hispanic past, coupled with the recipes and techniques brought by a colonization that still persists in some people's minds. The tight belt of conservatism is barely being loosened in this country's gastronomic world.
Redzepi did not come here to interpret or to cook Mexican cuisine. Nevertheless, enraptured by the wealth of the country's biodiversity, he highlighted the value of the natural purity of local ingredients and the self-imposed limits with which they are treated.
Noma not only established a supply network, but also built bridges that have opened up markets for suppliers, such as one of the best coffee growers and roasters in Tejenapa Chiapas, as well as several other community projects that need visibility in order to remain sustainable.
The Mexican Culinary Inspiration
Ever since his first visit to Mexico, 11 years ago, Redzepi has consistently praised the age-old wisdom behind the tortilla, which is based on corn dough enabled by the sophisticated Nixtamalization process. "They wash, marinate, or boil grains of corn in a high alkaline solution. Here they actually use water and lime. This is how they have eaten it for thousands of years; it is one of the greatest food innovations ever."
Inspiration came from the land and the culture, and the foundation of Mexico's culinary culture is the milpa: small-scale agricultural plots where beans, chilli, pumpkins, and corn are grown. Redzepi was perceptive enough to read this and to use the milpa as the core of his project, with corn as the undisputed star. "We spent a long time researching the Nixtamalization process and tried out several different methods, depending on the intended use of the corn," explained Pablo Sotor, one of the three Mexicans on the R+D team for Noma Mexico.
From the sweet-lime granita soup with mussel broth and nixtamal water to the highlight of the menu: octopus wrapped in pibinal cornhusk leaves, perfumed with sweet-lima oil and epazote, coated in charcoal-grilled and salted masa – corn dough. While it is seasoned with an undeniably Mexican dzikilpak – Mayan salsa made of roasted pumpkin seeds – the dish achieves a depth of flavour that we had never tasted before. "It took 30 different tests at the Test Kitchen, and it's a six page recipe to get to this amazing dish," Rene has explained. They not only used the husks of the pibinal corn but also the kernels, which gave body to crunchy salbute tortillas with chapulines – roasted grasshoppers. Corn is Mexico's flagship cereal, but the paradox is that many of its varieties are currently on the verge of extinction.
What have you learned from this journey?
This has been a learning journey. Like our other popups, it is mostly about inspiration and developing the culture of our team. More than 80 per cent of them had not visit Mexico before, and neither had many of our guests. It has been about exploring a different place, trying new things, and meeting new people. I am very happy with the team and the result. When you go on these journeys, you do come back with a fresh approach and renewed energy.
What is the value of this Mexico experience for the overall Noma project?
The most amazing discovery in Mexico for me has been learning about the use of spice. It has been like finding a 6th flavour, similar to discovering umami. I am blown away by it, by how chilli can round off and add depth to almost anything if you know how to use it well.
When you got here, you literally had to level the sandy ground and build a restaurant from scratch, with the whole world watching. Was this additional risk worth it?
Absolutely. We had everything to lose and nothing to gain from this, if something had gone wrong. It is much easier to stay at home and do what you already know how to do. Of course, there were nerves, but traveling broadens your view of food and culture. Once you get back home, you piece together all of these experiences, all the inspiration, and you try to apply these new learnings to your everyday routine. This fuels you, keeps you searching, and challenges essential parts of your dream. I truly believe that. You can’t ask for more.
Now we will have to wait for Noma to open in its new location later this year in Copenhagen, in order to find out how the techniques learned during this journey have influenced its cuisine.